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Students help implement Racial Justice Act

In early October, more than 20 students committed to work with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office on a major project.

Their goal was to review the files of more than 200 people charged with capital crimes to determine if race may have played a role in recommending the death penalty for some of those cases. Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §15A-2010 et seq. (“The Racial Justice Act”), an inmate on death row may request review of his or her case if the inmate believes that the prosecutor considered race when recommending the death penalty. The statute allows the judge, in a postconviction proceeding, to use statewide statistics as part of this inquiry.

“If there is significant evidence of racial bias in sentencing, a defendant may be able to avoid the death penalty,” said Matt Hayes (’12), who worked on the project.

As part of this Racial Justice Act (RJA) litigation, prosecutors must explain the pattern of charging decisions in all their homicide cases over the last ten years, relying on non-racial aggravating factors (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-2000(e)), such as the seriousness of the offense and the impact of the crime on the victim’s family and community.

This requires a detailed review of homicide files from the police and prosecutors in this county over the past 10 years, and Wake Forest law school students were eager and ready for the challenge.

With an interest in criminal law, an eye for detail, and a strong desire to help, the students who had been trained by Assistant District Attorney and Wake Forest Professor of Practice David Hall began their work.

“Each case was unique and interesting. I really enjoyed applying my research and analytical skills to reconstruct the crimes,” Hayes said.

Not only did the student summarize the factual and legal background for each case file, but they also helped to lighten the workload and free up valuable time for the attorneys at the District Attorney’s Office. The students who volunteered their time for this project exemplified Wake Forest law’s motto of Pro Iustitia (“In Service of Justice.”)

“It was a pleasure serving the community in an effort to fight racial injustice,” Hayes said. “Participating in the Pro Bono Project gave me a chance to step back and apply what I’ve learned in the classroom to a real world setting.”